When a fledgling eagle gets a little too big for the nest and the time has come for him to fly away and live on his own, he is understandably reluctant. Why would he want to leave? He has a soft, safe refuge from the frightening world. Through no effort of his own food arrives at his feet on a daily basis. There are few risks and ample rewards. But in her wisdom, the young eagle’s mother slowly begins to remove the soft, downy feathers from the nest, exposing the sharp and gnarled branches of the nest’s foundation. Soon the nest is no more comfortable and no more appealing than any other clump of branches, and the wider world suddenly seems much more interesting, much more possible. So too in our own lives, comfort is often the enemy of growth. It is our discomfort, our suffering that pushes us past stages of our life where we no longer belong. The problem is we don’t have eagle mothers. In fact, we work very hard to surround ourselves with soft, warm cocoons mistakenly believing that the purpose of life is to be comfortable. Fortunately, life has a way of shaking us loose even from the most carefully constructed cocoons.
Making peace with the inevitable disruptions of life is the work of every wise man and woman. The capacity to reframe loss as growth is a mark of our maturity. Coming to understand that suffering and dissatisfaction are soul-messages we ignore at our own peril is a vital part of our evolution from fearful, dependent beings into courageous, independent beings. The quality and depth of our life is directly proportional to our ability to recognize discomfort as a turn-signal – a call to a higher order of being.
Instead of honoring our uneasiness and heeding the call, we often take the opposite course. We self-medicate, we avoid, we deny, we slip beneath the undertow of the thought-stream, letting our endless excursions into the imagination seduce us into the lie that it’s o.k., at least we’re thinking about it. We gaze down from our lofty perch, seeing the wider world, but never daring to venture out into it.
Think back on those times in your life when you made the most dramatic changes, changes that resulted in new-found freedom, astonishing growth, the emergence of latent talents, the acquisition of new skills, and the realization of a deeper, more authentic joy. In almost every case were those necessary changes not preceded by periods of great uneasiness or worse? Like labor pains, did not your rebirth emerge at the end of process that was disorienting, painful and frightening?
When we look back and reflect on our suffering we often see a pattern. It turns out that life itself is our eagle mother. It relentlessly strips away the ephemeral comforts we thought would last forever and the tighter we grasped the more painful the inevitable separation. It is only when we look forward with eyes uplifted, wings outstretched, feeling for the subtle and invisible updraft that rises in response to our readiness that we finally come to understand that our highest good and our deepest joy were present all along – they were simply hidden from us by the fog of our own comfort.
On the hero’s journey of our lives we must leave the known world of childhood safety and enter the unknown, a place where none of the old rules apply and none of the old supports are in place. It is only in the great wide open that we feel our own latent strengths emerge. In the Wizard of Oz, the lion, the tin man, the scarecrow and Dorothy already had courage, a heart, a brain and the way home – they just had to have it scared out of them. When the wizard sent them to get the wicked witch’s broom he really knew what he was doing. It is only by running toward the thing we fear most, not away from it, that we die to our limited and limiting sense of self and realize our authentic nature. This is why the eagle mother pulls all of the down out of the nest – because she loves her chick so much and wants its life to be as magnificent as possible.
It is our nature to grow and expand, and growth requires the dissolution of earlier forms. As old forms crumble and fall away there is always a period of great uncertainty. What shape will the new forms take? Do I have the energy and the talent to manifest them, the graciousness to allow them, or the eyes to even see them? Uncertainty is a necessary condition. Expecting certainty is a disease of the ego, that part of us that wants to control every element, manage every turn and script every outcome. New forms emerge from a complex and untraceable confluence of streams of causation – suffice it to say that no single person or power is in charge. We’re all working together, mostly unawares, in the construction of this next now moment. And it is our collective suffering that conspires to co-create what’s next.
The wizard and the eagle mother do not give us our gifts. They merely help us create the conditions in which those gifts emerge from deep within our own nature. This is the sacred role of every teacher, mentor and guide – to see in their student the potential the student has not yet learned to see. And in the hero’s journey the mentor or guide always appears just when they are needed most, when the old way of being in the world is no longer working and a dizzying shift is underway. As the old Indian saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” It is our task then not to find a teacher, or the right book, or the right philosophy or ideology to subscribe to. We are only to make ourselves ready. Readiness means openness, humility and willingness. When we surrender to the call of our own authentic life, the right people, the right books, the right opportunities start finding us. And when you begin to live the life your soul is asking for, you feel a joy welling up in you that lights the path ahead. You may not know what the next 10,000 steps are, but you know what the next step is, and you take it willingly, faithfully, knowing that by honoring your authentic nature you are honoring the sacred nature of reality itself and moving into a deep and harmonious accord with all that is. This is a satisfaction that the fearful and nest-bound never get to feel.
There is nothing wrong with being young and scared. You unwillingness to change and grow is not your fault. It’s built in. Falling out of the nest before you have your feathers is fatal. But there comes a time when the habit of comfort no longer serves our best interests. It is in an eagle’s nature to fly high above the world and see things others will never see. None of that can happen in the nest. When we learn how to take risks and test the boundaries of our nature we give a great gift to ourselves and to the world. The world needs you and the gifts only you can bring. And when we learn how to live lives of artful service, our own joy comes to fruition. We have only to find the courage to finally feel our own feathers rise on the wind, and with a heart full of gratitude for those who nurtured us, leap from the eagle’s nest.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and professor at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics, and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/peterhbolland, or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org